Evgeny Morozov’s response to Sascha Lobo : More political interference!

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No entity, just a server: Facebook’s data center in Luleå, Sweden Bild: AFP

The NSA-disclosures have destroyed the utopia of the internet as a medium of freedom and democracy. Instead it more and more becomes apparent that the internet is ruled by big companies and secret services. According to the publicist Evgeny Morozov a reevaluation of the medium is necessary.

          I am no stranger to digital disappointments so I can easily relate to Sascha Lobo’s cri de coeur. Much like Sasha, I also began my exploration of digital technology with a heavy dose of unabashed enthusiasm and hope for its great democratizing potential. Perhaps, I was even more naïve than Sascha, for I always saw those technologies in the political context of the region I come from – i.e. the post-Soviet world and Belarus in particular. What a failure it has turned out to be. (Link to the German article)

          My own disillusionment began around 2007. As I discovered, the act of renouncing one’s cyber-optimism has two stages. Alas, not everyone completes them both. The first stage is quite banal: you embrace the latest empirical evidence and revise the content of your beliefs in what is otherwise a stable intellectual universe. You arrive at different conclusions but the objects of your analysis are never put into question. That’s how some people become vegetarians or come to oppose nuclear power; as new evidence comes in, they might go back to their once-abandoned beliefs or become even more extreme in their current ones. They don’t rethink the concepts of “meat” or “nuclear energy” every time a new study is published: they take different sides in a well-established debate.

          But it’s only at the second stage where the true rethinking of the digital dialectic can happen. Here one doesn’t just switch sides – one discovers new dimensions of reality, abandoning older ones as nothing more but irrelevant phantoms. A paradigm change is under way; it radically alters one’s worldview, destroying whatever certainty one has previously held in relations, objects, and topics of analysis. To discover that the earth revolves around the sun – rather than the other way around – or that we don’t need concepts like “phlogiston” or “ether” to explain the physical phenomena that they describe: these are paradigm-altering changes.

          Cyber-agnosticism instead of cyber-pessimism

          For simplicity’s sake, let’s call the first stage the empirical correction and the second stage the ontological correction. Why ontological? Well, it’s much more than just one’s position on a given issue that has to be revised – one also has to ascertain that the object of analysis is real and that one has sliced reality in the best possible way to illuminate it. “Does meat exist?” is not a very helpful question whereas “does ether exist?” was once very much so.

          Much of own intellectual work in the last few years has been dedicated to arguing that “the Internet” that Sascha claims is “kaputt” is more like “ether” than like “meat” – in that, while there’s no shortage of contemporary debates over whether the “Internet” is good or bad for democracy, we should do our best to ascertain that there is no better, more illuminating way to slice the technological reality that we inhabit. I, for one, remain unconvinced that we have arrived at the best conceptual foundation to describe the technological underpinning of the contemporary situation.

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